The Greatest Play
Here is a roundup of what five scholars say about The Bard’s greatest play. Lear and Hamlet, of course, are noted by two. One says about Hamlet, “It’s the pinnacle of Shakespeare’s artistic achievement. Hands down.” Just a few years ago I would have agreed. To my mind, Lear has gained ground and surpassed it. Gospels aside, Lear, I think, might be the greatest love story I have ever read. None of it, though, is about romantic love. The French King’s love for Cordelia is brushed aside early and we don’t see him again. There is Edgar’s lascivious love with the sisters. “Let copulation thrive…”, says Lear sardonically. Other loves abound and are explored, that of fathers and daughters, fathers and sons, and masters and servants. Lear provokes haunting horror, love, and tenderness.
Other tidbits in the piece are a case made for Othello, which I don’t buy. I loved the case made for The Winter’s Tale that has convinced me to seek out a production ASAP. Still, I’m not buying this argument either.
A more intriguing argument made by one scholar is for Henry V. As the author notes, however, it is one piece of the Henriad and does not stand alone. To my mind, there is one great epic play within the Henriad. After trimming the fat — and there is a fair amount of it across the four plays — we could be left with an play to rival Lear and Hamlet. Interestingly, after many years of studying these plays, I’ve come to the tentative conclusion that Hamlet and Lear are ultimately a rejection of Machiavellian politics. Lear is blatantly so whereas Hamlet is more cunning on this point. The Henriad, in contrast, is a celebration of politics and a deft rejection of monarchy that would make Machiavelli smile.